Navy Secretary Clashed With Trump Long Before Gallagher

Spencer’s ouster followed months of tensions with the White House over cost overruns and other issues.

U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Navy readiness in Washington on April 9.
U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Navy readiness in Washington on April 9. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s ouster over his handling of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher’s alleged war crimes was only the latest run-in he had had with the White House, and current and former U.S. officials say Spencer’s resignation had been a long time coming. 

“This Eddie Gallagher thing was just the icing on the cake,” one former defense official told Foreign Policy

Spencer, a former Marine aviator and career businessman, was fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper over the weekend after he refused to obey President Donald Trump’s Twitter demand that the Navy restore Gallagher’s rank. Until then, Spencer was Trump’s longest-serving service secretary, presiding over the Navy for more than 27 months. 

But his tenure was marred by repeated criticism from the White House—most prominently over Spencer’s difficulties in reining in cost overruns for the troubled $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, the most expensive ship ever built. 

Spencer’s relationship with the White House was so bad earlier this year that he planned to resign in August, former and current officials told Foreign Policy. Spencer reconsidered amid a series of tumultuous internal and external events that rocked the Defense Department this summer, including the resignation of then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan over reports of disturbing family disputes. At the time, Trump elevated then-Army Secretary Esper as the new nominee for defense secretary, and Spencer briefly took over as acting Pentagon chief while Esper entered the confirmation process. Spencer was also said to be reluctant to leave while tensions with Iran were high, with the U.S. military coming within minutes of a conflict with Tehran over the downing of a U.S. drone, and the Navy’s senior ranks were in turmoil after an admiral set to take over as the service’s top officer instead resigned amid allegations of misconduct.

But despite Spencer’s brief stint as acting defense secretary, current and former officials say relations with the White House continued to sour in recent months. One former defense official pointed to tensions with Robert O’Brien, the newly minted national security advisor. The ousted Navy secretary had been in the hot seat over the service’s backing away from the president’s campaign promise to get to 355 ships, former defense officials say. Top Navy officials recently said that even if budget levels remain on track, the Navy will fall far short, reaching only 314 by 2024. 

The White House’s frustration with Spencer only grew after National Security Advisor John Bolton was fired in September and O’Brien, who has advocated strongly for a 355-ship Navy, assumed the job, according to a former defense official. “Spencer woke up to that a little too late,” the former official said. “I think he lost sight of the president’s overarching priorities.”

On Sunday, Spencer finally fell victim to an internal power struggle that stretched from the Pentagon to the White House, ballooning from an internal matter of disciplining a Navy SEAL to a national controversy the president sees as an important political narrative as he ramps up his reelection campaign. 

Spencer sought to portray his resignation as a matter of personal honor, claiming in a lengthy resignation letter that he had decided to resign because he couldn’t “in good conscience” carry out Trump’s order to let Gallagher retain the coveted Trident pin marking his status as a SEAL. 

“In order to preserve the resiliency of the naval institution, I had to step up and do something when it came to the Gallagher case,” Spencer told CBS News on Monday.

Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious of nearly a dozen charges—including allegations that he opened fire on civilians during a deployment to Iraq, murdered a captured Islamic State fighter, and threatened fellow SEALs for reporting his actions—in July but was convicted of posing for a photo with a corpse of an Islamic State fighter. Following his conviction, the Navy decided to take away Gallagher’s pin, a move that Trump ordered reversed. 

But Esper insisted that he fired Spencer for trying to cut a backroom deal with the White House that would have allowed Gallagher to keep his pin while appearing to let the Navy investigate the case independently. Esper was “flabbergasted” to learn that Spencer had been dealing directly with the White House regarding the case behind his back, he told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. 

“I asked for Secretary Spencer’s resignation because of the loss in trust and confidence after what transpired these last several days,” Esper said. Gallagher will keep his pin and retire at the end of the month, Esper said, per a direct order from Trump on Sunday. 

But a third narrative of the events that led to Spencer’s ouster has emerged: Trump on Sunday tweeted that he was unhappy with how Gallagher’s case was handled and Spencer’s inability to rein in cost overruns for pricey Navy contracts. 

Former and current officials say the president’s version of events is likely closest to the truth.

“Spencer was on shaky ground with POTUS for months over his poor management of major programs,” one administration official said. “Now he gets to play the martyr.” 

Over the course of Spencer’s tenure, the Navy frequently drew Trump’s ire over cost overruns, delays, and technological problems that have plagued its newest aircraft carrier for years. In particular, Trump has railed against the Navy for moving to a new technology, which uses electricity to launch aircraft from carrier decks, instead of the old system of steam catapults.

“I said what system are you going to be—‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam,” Trump said in a 2017 interview with Time. “You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.” 

Spencer recently revealed that he made a deal that Trump could fire him if another new technology causing cost overruns and delays, the Gerald R. Ford’s weapons elevators, weren’t fixed by the end of the summer. The problem was not resolved, but Spencer remained in his job. 

Spencer also drew the White House’s ire over the Navy’s decision during budget negotiations this spring to retire the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, which would have saved $30 billion over 25 years. The proposal sparked bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, and Vice President Mike Pence ultimately reversed the decision.

Meanwhile, Navy was in the hot seat in June over a low-level White House aide’s request to obscure the USS John S. McCain destroyer during Trump’s recent visit to Japan. U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, the commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, shot down the request, but the directive shed light on a painful politicization of the military in the Trump era.

Spencer has also faced fire from Capitol Hill. This year, he was upbraided by senior lawmakers for trying to dissolve the position of a senior Navy civilian to oversee housing for military families. At the time, the Navy was in the middle of an unfolding scandal over appalling living conditions—including mold rat infestations and lead paint—at some military housing facilities. 

Democratic lawmakers have fumed about the confusing and conflicting narratives emerging from Spencer’s ouster, painting it as emblematic of chaos within the Trump administration.

“We still need more information, and we’re working to get at the facts,” Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “But clearly, Spencer’s forced resignation is another consequence of the disarray brought about by President Trump’s inappropriate involvement in the military justice system and the disorder and dysfunction that has been a constant presence in this Administration.”

Robbie Gramer contributed reporting. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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